Fairies, Folklore and Forteana
SIMON YOUNG FILES A NEW REPORT FROM THE INTERFACE OF STRANGE PHENOMENA AND FOLK BELIEF
ONE OF THE FINEST FORENSIC DISSECTIONS OF A COLLECTIVE SUPERNATURAL EXPERIENCE THAT I HAVE EVER READ
MODELLING SHARED VISIONS
I’ve had the great pleasure of reading, during a bout of flu, Eugene Hynes’s study of the Marian apparition at Knock in 1879 in County Mayo, Ireland ( Knock: The Virgin’s Apparition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, Cork University Press, 2008).
The apparition was a remarkable supernatural event. Many men, women and children saw, for several hours, three luminous figures standing in the sky near the village’s church gable. These figures were static and did not speak. One witness, interestingly, saw the light, though not the figures, from his farm window a mile away. Hynes’s book is not principally about the apparition; rather, it inserts the apparition into changes in Irish Catholicism and rural life in the mid-tolate 19th century – Hynes is a sociologist. However, there is a magnificent chapter on the vision itself, one of the finest forensic dissections of a collective supernatural experience that I have ever read.
Hynes breaks down the recording of the experience into five parts, making the fundamental point that the experience and what we eventually read about in the press are two very different things. This is a model that could usefully be applied to other fortean group experiences, from ghosts to UFOs. First, there is the vision, where Hynes has very little to say: what can a social scientist do with the impossible? Second, sources. Hynes notes that some of the viewers were influenced in the vision by religious images seen earlier in their lives: one boy, for instance, compared the vision to images he had seen in Catholic school books. Third, witness editing. The seers, individually and in groups, subsequently edited what they had seen in an attempt to make sense of it. Freud noted a similar process for dreams and called it ‘secondary elaboration’. Above all, we remove bits that don’t make sense. Fourth, recorder editing. The details of the vision were taken down by Church officials who had their own agenda. One of the three luminous figures went from being an anonymous bishop to St John the Evangelist! Fifth, additions. Church officials talked to a number of seers and several had marginal details that no one else had noticed and these were added to the mix. The result at Knock was that a lamb, an altar and a cross appeared, though most witnesses had not seen them.
Put any experience through this sausage machine and there is the potential for massive distortion. As to the vision itself, the only ‘natural explanation’ is that someone in the locality had decided to put on a magic lantern show. Hynes, rightly, has little patience with this – but nor does he give any satisfying explanation for how anything between a dozen and two dozen witnesses were collectively plunged into the Twilight Zone for several hours…